Cover image for Conceiving a Nation: The Development of Political Discourse in the Hebrew Bible By Mira Morgenstern

Conceiving a Nation

The Development of Political Discourse in the Hebrew Bible

Mira Morgenstern


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240 pages
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Conceiving a Nation

The Development of Political Discourse in the Hebrew Bible

Mira Morgenstern

“Mira Morgenstern is a deep reader of biblical texts, and her readings give us a new and provocatively modern understanding of Israelite nationhood—constructed, as it were, from the margins, by dreamers, strangers, and women, among others. This is an illuminating and exciting book.”


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Current conflicts in both national and international arenas have undermined the natural, organic concept of nationhood as conventionally espoused in the nineteenth century. Conceiving a Nation argues that the modern understanding of the nation as a contested concept—as the product of a fluid and ongoing process of negotiation open to a range of livable solutions—is actually rooted in the Bible.

This book draws attention to the contribution that the Bible makes to political discourse about the nation. The Bible is particularly well suited to this open-ended discourse because of its own nature as a text whose ambiguity and laconic quality render it constantly open to new interpretations and applicable to changing circumstances. The Bible offers a pluralistic understanding of different models of political development for different nations, and it depicts altering concepts of national identity over time.

In this book, Morgenstern reads the Bible as the source of a dynamic critique of the ideas that are conventionally considered to be fundamental to national identity, treating in successive chapters the ethnic (Ruth), the cultural (Samson), the political (Jotham), and the territorial (Esther). Throughout, she explores a number of common themes, such as the relationship of women to political authority and the “strangeness” of Israelite political existence. In the Conclusion, she elucidates how biblical analysis can aid in recognition of modern claims to nationhood.

“Mira Morgenstern is a deep reader of biblical texts, and her readings give us a new and provocatively modern understanding of Israelite nationhood—constructed, as it were, from the margins, by dreamers, strangers, and women, among others. This is an illuminating and exciting book.”
Political theorists and biblical scholars have shown an increased interest recently in the political character of the Hebrew Bible. Mira Morgenstern’s Conceiving a Nation is a noteworthy addition to the burgeoning academic literature on the subject. Morgenstern focuses on six examples—Joseph, Moses, three figures from the period of the judges (Ruth, Jotham, and Samson), and Esther. She uses these examples to argue that the political discourse of the Hebrew Bible is characterized by the persistent theme of strangeness/difference, which not only distinguishes the biblical text from more traditional works for political theory, but also makes it especially relevant to our own time. Morgenstern’s book is influenced by and, in turn, will influence discussion in the fields of political theory and biblical studies as well as feminist and literary studies.
“[This] book is a significant contribution to the political theory of ancient Israel. . . . Using a literary approach for reading biblical narratives, Morgenstern masterfully presents many political implications in the Hebrew scriptures with interpretations that are original and insightful.”

Mira Morgenstern is Associate Professor of Political Science at The City College, City University of New York. She is the author of Rousseau and the Politics of Ambiguity: Self, Culture, and Society (Penn State, 1996).




1 Joseph: The Politics of Dreaming

2 Moses: The Politics of Alienation

3 Ruth: The Politics of Difference

4 Jotham: The Politics of Parable

5 Samson: The Politics of Riddling

6 Esther: The Politics of Metaphor





This book uses the Bible as a springboard to explore the role that discourse plays in forming a nation. The Bible is an ancient text with modern tonalities: it is one of the first works in which the tensions of the complex relationships between personal and communal life are presented, not as inevitably tragic (as reflected in ancient Greek thought), but rather as part of a intricate system whose ongoing comprehension yields its participants a richer and more deeply human experience.

In its analysis of the political process of forming a nation, Conceiving a Nation does not emphasize the better-known and obviously contentious confrontations in the Bible over the course of Israelite nation formation (for example, the civil war between Saul and David is not discussed here). Rather, this book focuses on the development of political discourse in the process of defining a nation. Central to the Bible’s presentation of political discourse is that this process always remains open-ended: there is no one “correct” solution to the challenges of national existence. The Bible’s pluralistic understanding of different models of political development for different nations, along with its depiction of the changing concepts of national identity over time, provides a much-needed corrective to the current tendency to view the Bible as a text of uniform and univalent meaning. Indeed, the ambiguity and the laconic quality of the Hebrew Bible render it constantly open to new interpretations, and its texts therefore always speak to changing circumstances. In her book on Biblical hermeneutics, Susan Handelman expresses it this way: “Thus in speaking of Torah, the act of interpretation is included and integral. . . . The boundaries between text and interpretation are fluid.”

The fluid quality of interpretation is an important part of the concept of national identity presented in this book. This understanding of national belonging is influenced by what Benedict Anderson has called “imagined communities.” Although Anderson consciously writes of the “modern culture of nationalism,” much of what Anderson describes regarding the power of the imagination to distill a coherent and dynamic sense of nationhood already exists in the text of one of the most ancient of written documents. The Hebrew Bible portrays the development of Israelite nationhood as a thing that is imagined before it is realized. Significantly, the Bible does not conceptualize a nation’s development as the product of just one person or group. In order to attain an existence that is both stable and dynamic—that is to say, partaking of the qualities of both permanence and ongoing development—the Bible demonstrates that the imagination of the nation must be the product of both a leader and a people. As the Bible understands it, a nation must be “conceived,” in both senses of that word, before it can be successfully born. As I will discuss later, it is no accident that the process of nurturing national identity in the Hebrew Bible holds women at its core.

The narratives that I highlight all focus on the conflicts that lie at the core of every nation. In all of these stories—the dreams of Joseph and the quarrels with his brothers, the “storybook” tale of the arch foreigner Ruth, the shocking parable of Jotham, the riddling exploits of Samson, the metaphors of the triply estranged Esther—the central themes reach beyond what are commonly considered to be the “political” concerns of a leader for his/her own power position. That is why I do not focus on the travails of power as experienced by Biblical kings like Saul, David, or Solomon. Instead, the highlighted Biblical narratives underscore a different kind of conflict, one that encompasses the larger social and national tensions whose energies those leaders must harness if they are to nurture a national entity that will survive beyond their own charismatic authority. As portrayed in the Bible, not all of these leaders completely accomplish their self-appointed tasks: as even the most successful of them realize, establishing a political discourse is an undertaking that can never be finally “achieved,” but instead remains a project of perennial negotiation. The Bible emphasizes the commonality of effort between people and leader needed to provide for the emergence of a vibrant national discourse and political identity.

In this book, discourse denotes the conversation that establishes the concept of national commonality and hence a sense of political identity. In the course of outlining the development of a nation’s self-understanding, I emphasize the conversations constituting this discourse rather than the particulars of the legal code that reflect/impel this dialogue. In this context, the texts that are the focus of sustained analysis depict periods of flux, or crisis, in Israelite development. These texts are scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible, and certainly not every one of these texts is treated in this book. (In fact, the argument can be made that every episode that results in writing is by definition a text of crisis.) With two major exceptions, the texts treated in this book focus largely on the period depicted in the Biblical Book of Judges, which is chronologically post-conquest (of the Promised Land) and pre-monarchical: that is to say, when the Israelite nation is portrayed as growing out of one mode (a newly established nation) and into another (settling on a particular mode of political leadership). Any period of protracted searching for self-definition is easily recognized as one of crisis, although that crisis is generally appreciated only retrospectively, after it has produced fundamental change. (At the moment of crisis, individuals and groups are generally too busy coping with the actualities of change to recognize its wider theoretical and practical implications.) Because the crises depicted in these texts are national (or at least trans-tribal) in character, they give rise to a renewed interest in national self-definition. As a result, a new approach to dialogue on a national level takes place, which I identify as the national discourse that establishes a polity.

In describing the development of the Israelites into a nation, the term political is used to denote the development of a communal sense of identity and general welfare, both of which result from the establishment of a common sense of meaning through the promotion of a shared civil discourse. In this connection, it is important to note the particular sense of the word development as it is utilized in this book. While development may be defined as a practice with a discrete beginning, middle, and end, I employ a more open-ended concept of development, one that emphasizes process rather than final closure (this approach is familiar when dealing with the concept of love, or of intellectual development). The Biblical presentation of the development of this political discourse becomes difficult to comprehend, however, because there is no obvious “sweep” or resolution to this conversation. It evolves—and sometimes backslides—in fits and starts; it is very much a function of the people and circumstances of a particular era. Although this book’s chapters are arranged in a loosely historical fashion—the placement of Ruth toward the beginning of the book takes seriously the Hebrew Bible’s situation of these events during the period of the judges, and relies also on some of the historical details scattered about the text—this does not imply that there is a smooth trajectory of growth in the development of political discourse from start to finish. To be sure, the location of Esther’s contribution at the end of the book may give the impression that some final resolution has been “achieved,” particularly as Esther is appears much later in the chronology of the Biblical text. What this chapter actually signals, however, is the ability of national discourse to operate even when the obvious trappings of nationality—independence, freedom, statehood—no longer obtain. This may be interpreted as an advance; what the Biblical text actually shows, however, is that national discourse may exist in a vast array of circumstances, and it need not be a function of traditionally defined power concerns or political struggles.

Thus, I read the Bible as the source of a dynamic critique of the concepts conventionally considered fundamental to national identity. The Biblical text interrogates and problematizes these accepted categorizations of nationality: the ethnic (Ruth), the cultural (Samson), the political (Jotham), and the territorial (Esther). Consequently, this book highlights the Bible’s contribution to a conversation that, in contrast to the “organic” conception of nationhood so vaunted in the nineteenth century, is once again coming to be viewed as highly problematic and unsettled. The Bible has a central role to play in the conversation about the nation within the current stream of political and ethical discord. The nuanced understanding of the Bible advanced in this book is a reminder that, even for those uninterested in the ancient religious provenance or even in particular narrative tales of the Bible, this text remains of central importance in constructing contemporary political discourse.

The Bible structures its analysis of political discourse by focusing on a nation whose political development is atypical, especially when contrasted with surrounding empires (e.g., those of the ancient Egyptians, Hittites, and Babylonians). This renders the Israelite experience particularly interesting for theoretical analysis, because it provides an unusual vantage point from which to analyze common (historical and current) assumptions about nation formation and national identity. Biblical narratives reflect this singular perspective by refracting the development of Israelite nationhood and the background of discord against which it developed through the concept of strangeness/difference. Consequently, I utilize the concept of strangeness to interpret the development of Israelite nationhood and the political discourse that impels it.

In the Biblical texts, strangeness is evident in both the structure and the quality of Israelite political existence. Structurally, for example, the strangeness of Israelite nationhood is apparent in how the text describes the Israelite delineation of the political sphere. Unlike many of its cultural contemporaries, Israelite political discourse does not develop exclusively (or even mainly) in venues specifically or traditionally recognized as public: there is no institutionalized agora in which to situate a growing awareness of the public commonality. Instead, in the Biblical text, national awareness develops in settings that are both quotidian and domestic, such as Gideon’s granary, Samson’s parties, or Ruth’s conversations in privately owned farms or walking along a dusty path. Furthermore, the Israelites are depicted, unlike many nations of the time, as articulating their own political identity through people who are generally considered domestic and alien to “public” space: women, or else leaders who are presented as women. This portrayal is subtle and may not be immediately apparent to the casual reader. It is only after absorbing the Bible’s litany of leaders that are each described as possessing characteristics that normally would disqualify them from leadership—being lame (Ehud’s right hand never seems to work properly), being preoccupied with the disposition of his hair coupled with seemingly unpredictable and arbitrary displays of temper (Samson), being a tattletale and a clotheshorse (Joseph)—that the careful reader comes to realize that the text utilizes these adjectives purposefully. The Bible’s choice of words deliberately associates leadership with attributes conventionally utilized pejoratively to label women: weak, mercurial, overly talkative, and fashion conscious. The disconcerting attribution of political power to people who are described with socially and sexually fraught terms makes the reader understand that the Bible presents power as intrinsically alienated and alienating. Thus, the estrangement of the Israelite leaders from the standard conception of political power means that these rulers are in no position to impose their own concept of national identity on the people. Indeed, the text implicitly argues that national distinctiveness can be attained only through ongoing negotiation and conversations among people who are likely to be strange to each other; even more importantly, these people may well also be strange to themselves.

The concept of strangeness that dominates the quality of Israelite national existence is manifest textually both in the external relations between the Israelites and their surrounding environment, and by the internal connections among the constituent parts of the Israelite nation. Importantly, both of these arenas are marked by conflict. These clashes increase the uncertainty that accompanies the process of hammering out a national identity, which then heightens the implicit tensions evoked by the real possibility of failure. Although the moral connotations of the socioeconomic gaps within Israelite society form a major theme in the Biblical writings of the Later Prophets, the political implications of these dissonances manifest themselves early on in Israelite political development. As such, these consequences have been less thoroughly analyzed, even though these are central to understanding both the complicated nature of Israelite identity and the polyphonic quality of the discourse(s) that created Israelite national identity.

As the Bible describes it, because the Israelite community is fractured by the conflicts engendered by strangeness, it is clear that the Israelites’ sense of themselves as one nation does not develop in a uniform manner. By the same token, the level and quality of the estrangement evinced by different parts of the Israelite community continues to fluctuate. The different parts of this community—rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, plains dwellers and mountain folk, judges and plebeians—are variously affected by the structures important to their particular experiences of daily life; consequently, they view the imperatives of national identity in different and often contrasting ways. Because the Israelites’ sense of national identity develops against the background of this and other conflicts, their (in/)ability to easily articulate a national discourse mirrors their contentious conceptions of the substance of their national identity. As depicted in the Bible, the evolution of this discourse becomes the sticking point for much of Biblical Israelite history in their Promised Land.

The persistence of the theme of strangeness in Israelite political development implies that dissonance and nonconventional thinking are the hallmarks of Israelite nation formation. The Biblical text presents nationhood in general as a concept that is fundamentally “uncanny”—and even, in Kierkegaard’s sense, absurd. In the Tower of Babel episode, for example, the origins of nationhood are depicted as both humanly engendered and Divinely directed. This confluence of causes is the result of a complex irony exposed in the narrative: the success of human cooperation, perceived as upsetting the Divinely bestowed world order, itself inspires the Divine dispersal of humankind. Tellingly, this diffusion is embodied in different linguistic constructions that, previously understood as alternate enunciations of individuality, now become markers of incomprehensibility to all “others.” In an “absurd” move, nationhood exaggerates the essence of human distinctiveness into the source of human estrangement and, ultimately, destructive violence.

Countering this, the Bible introduces a new way of analyzing both the traditional constellations of power and conventional arguments centered on traditional raison d’état or national imperatives. Instead of viewing nationhood as a convenient method of organizing power relations within (one’s corner of) the world, the Bible introduces another possible understanding of national definition: nationhood representing the opportunity to interrogate existing power relations and their accompanying moral implications. Textually, the Bible highlights this counterintuitive approach by providing a different literary style to anchor crucial episodes centering on the interrogation and exploration of political discourse. In this way, the Bible’s particulars of literary style reveals the political implications of the available choices in the development of political discourse.

To be sure, it is easy to mock strangeness as a concept that winds up painting everybody with the same broad brush: if everyone is estranged, then no one is really any different. However, it is important to note that the Biblical text presents the notion of estrangement as a counterweight to the commonly accepted, even if unacknowledged, idea that people and their makeup and desires are essentially unchanging. In its treatment of Israelite political development, the Biblical text points out that as circumstances alter, so do people. Consequently, part of what makes a polity both dynamic and stable is the ability of its national discourse to adapt to these changes. Otherwise, the polity becomes a thinly disguised dictatorship with no claim to moral coherence. As different narratives in these various Biblical texts make clear, moral coherence is central to the continuing vitality of both individuals and communities. This is highlighted most obviously in the famous counterexamples of the political and personal tragedies brought about by the absence of this coherence: the narratives of David and Bathsheba, and Jephtah and his daughter, to name just two. By contrast, the final (historical) narrative in the Hebrew Bible presented in this book highlights both the achievements of Esther in reimagining a community and the ability of that community to renew itself. While the vast majority of Biblical texts essentially present moral coherence as fealty to the word of God, in the Book of Esther moral coherence is not overtly presented as a function of God-centered activity. Rather, moral probity is portrayed in the willingness to identify and oppose baseless evil (what in today’s parlance would be called a “hate crime”) in circumstances that are inconvenient and even dangerous. In that context, “estrangement,” in the sense highlighted by this book, is not understood as a sense of personal discomfort or adolescent alienation; rather, it is the ability both to look at oneself as one among many of the players that are on the scene, and to realize that the moral and political horizon stretches beyond the tip of one’s own nose.

In keeping with this understanding, the development of political discourse among the Israelites is depicted in the Bible as an ongoing exchange. The parameters of this discussion are not imposed from above, and no one leader ever is heralded as the quintessential arbiter of what this discourse should entail. In the course of this conversation, the essence of the ongoing source of national unity itself comes into question. At times, a kind of concord about this core principle seems to be tentatively established. At other times, however, national solidarity is expressed largely in the communal identification and alienation of particular groups, leading to their subsequent victimization. It is worth noting that this purposive estrangement allows the Israelites to project the very strangeness with which they are taxed by other peoples—Weber’s “pariah” community—onto a part of their own society. In other words, as the Israelites are defined by other nations as an entity that is excised from accepted social and political communal bonds, the Bible depicts the Israelites themselves as excluding parts of their own community from themselves. The Bible alerts us to the fact that this purposive estrangement—the intentional act of rendering others alien—indicates more than the presence of a significant social/political problem. For the target group of this alienation, the feeling of estrangement can and does also serve as a valuable and critical vantage point. With this analysis, the Bible reveals itself as an ancient document that paradoxically—and uniquely—for its time addresses a central modern concern. In an era where nations are conceived as organically tied to their own portion of the earth (think of Socrates’ description in The Republic of the myth in which citizens are to be [falsely] inculcated in the belief that they have emerged from the earth), the Bible opens up a new vista on all individuals and all nations as being (at least to some degree) fundamentally estranged. To be sure, the Bible indicates that this estrangement may (in some measure) be overcome, but this requires ongoing and dynamic interpersonal interchange—even, and especially, with strangers—conducted in (existential) good faith.

Reading Biblical texts through the lens of nation formation helps the modern reader recognize the centrality of the Biblical narrative to the implications of political discourse for both communal life and personal existence. Not everyone today is interested in Bible stories, but the Biblical narrative as presented here makes us realize that, in its larger political ramifications, this text encapsulates the vicissitudes of modern political and personal struggle. Read as the complex document that it is, the Bible embodies not the untrammeled expression of arbitrary violence, but the development of humanity in all its varied incarnations.

A Note on Textual Hermeneutics

Paradoxically for what one might expect from such an ancient text, time has not settled the meaning of the Bible. The complicated implications of the text continue to arouse its readers, and even to incite multitudinous quarrels among them. One reason for this may well be that the Bible is often viewed as more than just a narrative presentation of events. Many readers see it also as a religious text commanding various aspects of belief/practice. Particularly (although not exclusively) in modern times, this has resulted in a peculiar, if largely unacknowledged, type of “test” that links the acceptance of a particular reading or interpretation of a Biblical text to the level and direction of the author’s perceived commitment to the relevant belief system connected to the text. This “test” applies both to the traditionally “religious” or analytically “scholarly” types, as those terms are themselves variously glossed. In other words, the ostensible confessional approach of the writer of interpretational texts on the Bible is often taken as sufficient reason either to accept or, alternatively, to reject the particular reading advanced. Far from resolving issues of interpretation, this attitude raises the question of why a belief system (of the author) should determine the textual interpretation (of a reader). Is the meaning of a text reducible to just a matter of (dis)belief? Yet today, interpretational/critical works on the Bible are still routinely (if unconsciously) subjected to similar multipronged faith examinations: can the critical work be taken seriously if the author believes/rejects the Divine/multiply authored/multiply sourced origins of the Biblical text/s?

The critical perspective of my book derives from my lifelong study of the various Biblical texts, and particularly from the more recent changes within the enterprise of writing on the Biblical text. Many of these transformations embody central feminist concerns that have largely reshaped the field of Biblical hermeneutics. Some of the most imaginative writing on knotty Biblical issues in the past fifty years has been done by women, regardless of whether they are writing from a standpoint of faith: examples range from Phyllis Trible to Athalya Brenner to Mieke Bal. In my own modern Orthodox tradition, the newly public nature (and hence, the inevitable “discovery” of the political nature) of women’s voices in the interpretation of important Biblical and legal texts central to religious/communal life is highlighted by a recent news article focusing on the advent of women to positions of religious and textual leadership. In addition, previous years have also seen the publication of well-received, serious exegetical works by Orthodox women such as Nechama Leibowitz and, in a more literary style, Avivah Zornberg.

Thus, the themes that inform this book have grown out of my own engagement with texts. Like most works centering on complex discourses, the origins of my book are multiple in nature. My own writing on eighteenth-century political theory—particularly on the works of Rousseau, highlighting his distinctive contribution to the radical critique of tradition, democracy, and modernity—coupled with the study of its political texts that closely read specific Biblical narratives, have increased my awareness of the important role played by the Biblical text in the formation of modern political discourse. Similarly, the central part played by eighteenth-century political theory to the development of modern feminist discourse likewise reveals the significance of a proto-feminist sensibility in certain key Biblical texts, which allude to the conscious development of national identity, political dialogue, and discursive exchange.

As already noted, my engagement with Biblical texts has led me to comprehend them as fundamental to human concerns in areas of life that may not always have been identified with the traditionally understood “religious” sphere. Particularly in recent years, religiously motivated actors on the political scene have highlighted the centrality of the Biblical text to self-consciously political concerns. To a large degree, these actors have viewed the Enlightenment, conventionally seen as sundering religious and political concerns, as a baneful influence on human development (this is the point of Mark Lilla’s recent The Still-born God). In fact, while the Enlightenment separates religious power from political might, sensitive reading of Enlightenment texts, particularly those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (probably the most misunderstood of Enlightenment philosophes in this area), demonstrates that the Enlightenment makes room for religious concerns, even while guaranteeing no one group an inevitable lock on political power. Lilla’s more pessimistic view, stated in appropriately multicultural language, essentially recasts the discussion of politics and religion in a way that problematizes the philosophical acceptability of the universality of liberty. In so doing, he effectively cedes the discussion to those who view human freedom as little more than culturally tangential.

Similarly, although it is conventionally assumed that modernist critical concerns and classical Biblical commentaries are mutually contradictory, I have found that both methods are rooted in an enduring search for meaning that views the life of Biblical texts as embodied in unending, active interpretation. To the extent that the details of these various readings may differ from and even contradict one another, their dissonances serve to highlight the more nuanced approach of the Bible itself—which is often more subtle than those offered by more contemporary commentators—to the issues that continue to energize and bedevil contemporary culture and politics. Although the provenance of the interpretational sources utilized in this book ranges widely—historically and religiously, these may emerge from oppositional belief systems—they as often respond with great sensitivity and in not incongruous ways to the linguistic and substantive issues laid out by the text. This book concentrates on the larger political understandings undergirding the Biblical text, particularly in the demonstrated linkage of long-term political survival to the continuous examination and extension of political discourse. Consequently, I take seriously the current political implications of this theoretical understanding of the Biblical text. These implications are what renders the Biblical text perennially relevant and consistently insightful even, and especially, in contemporary times.

The novelty of my book is to foreground the Biblical presentation of political discourse as central to constituting a nation, and to do this in a way that highlights the centrality of political issues like political responsibility, communal discourse, and moral/intellectual autonomy, topics that are conventionally seen as belonging to the democratic tradition rather than to a Biblical/religious one. And that is precisely the point. The mutually exclusive designations of conventional thinking are the product of powerful interests reading the Bible, rather than a true reflection of the concerns of the Biblical text itself. The Bible, even if not recognized as such, forms an integral part of current political discourse; it deserves to be made accessible to everyone who holds a stake in its consequences.

© 2009 Penn State University

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